Since the outbreak of COVID 19, normal reality has been turned upside down. Day to day operations, social interactions, finances and policies all radically changed in a matter of days in order to preserve the health of the general public. Although it was a necessary step to take, it raised serious concerns about how this new reality would affect Saskatoon’s most vulnerable population. And while most organizations moved to remote services (Quint’s employment program included), our Affordable Housing Program (AHP) continued to provide essential services to our tenants.
From a housing perspective, Quint had three main concerns:
- Isolation of tenants and how this might affect addictions/mental health;
- the shut-down of community services which leaves tenants with holes in their support networks, and finally;
- Rent collection (tenants building up insurmountable arrears and the financial loss to the program).
In order to develop a response that would effectively address these concerns, Quint’s Affordable Housing Program (AHP) had to look at who our tenants are and the values of our program.
Investing in positive relationship building will create long lasting, impactful change
Quint, by in large, houses families with an average income of under $25,000. Many families are single parents that rely on a network of government, family and/or community support to make ends meet and they have found their way to Quint because they have experienced housing instability. Tenants that live at Quint are resilient in the face of adversity. They are creative and resourceful, finding new ways to support their families and meet their needs. They display a myriad of strengths that are as diverse as our tenants are, and they exemplify the good that so easily is overlooked in the core neighbourhoods.
Quint intentionally works to minimize and transform the power imbalance of typical landlord and tenant relationships that come with the nature of the roles. We have worked hard to redefine that relationship of landlord and tenant as a partnership and each person has roles and expectations. There is mutual accountability and it is a reciprocal relationship built on trust, vulnerability and respect. What does this have to do with COVID-19? It turns out, a lot. AHP’s response to COVID 19 is shaped by this underlying value of strengthening relationships.
The Affordable Housing’s response plan to COVID-19
The AHP’s response to COVID 19 focused on 3 main areas:
- Lean on the relationships;
- Get out of the way.
Lean On Relationships
Times of crisis, uncertainty and change test the core values of people and institutions. This was an opportunity for Quint to reaffirm the belief that positive relationships provide tangible benefits. What does it mean to lean on relationships? Tenant relationships are built over time and require intentional face to face interactions, intentional hard conversations, and intentional celebrations of good times. It requires authentic care and investment so that tenants feel safe to be vulnerable, and that they feel respected and valued so they feel comfortable to ask questions. This establishes trust.
In the context of COVID 19, leaning on relationships meant trusting a tenant when they said, “I can’t pay full rent today because I have to buy groceries, but I’ll pay the rest when I can.” It also meant asking tenants to be patient with non-urgent maintenance requests. Quint’s AHP and tenants are comfortable with a give and take relationship.
During the beginning stages of COVID-19, information was coming at a rapid pace from multiple sources. It was a challenge to keep up with different level of government updates and this provided confusion around rental expectations, which community supports are operating, and to what capacity, etc. It was determined early on that filtering this information and passing it on to tenants in clear language was going to be important. Communication had to be flexible in order to accommodate a tenants accessibility to a phone or a computer, as well as varying literacy rates. This meant that Quint’s housing staff had to be responsive to individual circumstances in order to provide effective communication.
Get Out of the Way
Quint’s role has been to increase accessibility by introducing e-transfers, flexing office hours and clearly articulating government benefits and consequences of decisions. Both the AHP and tenants quickly recognized that barriers would intensify during the pandemic, whether it was childcare changes, job loss, closure of services, and the list goes on. Acknowledging these new realities with tenants enabled them to use their resourcefulness to come up with their own plans to navigate their changing needs. Quint housing staff were able to problem solve alongside tenants to support informed decision making, but the important piece is that the plans were tenant led. Quint’s housing program has been trying to get out of the way so that tenants are able to make their own decisions and plans for their own lives. Our role has been to inform tenants, adjust accessibility and be a sounding board for their ideas.
How have these 3 response tactics played out in reality?
Investing in tenant relationships and then leaning on those relationships during the pandemic has gone a long way to mitigate the initial fears around COVID-19. Most Quint tenants have not been severely impacted by isolation due to regular phone calls, emails, or check ins with, and by, staff. There has not been a noticeable difference in mental health or addictions related issues with tenants during this time either. Isolation has been hard on everybody, but housing staff and tenants have mutually benefited from prioritizing check ins.
Community services and supports have been radically adjusted during the pandemic. Communicating that information to tenants in a timely fashion has been critical in supporting a tenant’s ability to come up with their own plans for how to manage during the pandemic.
Finally, Quint’s AHP has seen a small increase in tenants paying rent. Approximately 3% of tenants have built up sizable arrears during COVID-19 which is a slight decrease from before the pandemic! There have been support measures put in place by all levels of government and that has all played a role in how Quint tenants are managing. Life during a pandemic is complex and unpredictable, however, it is clear that prioritizing healthy relationship has made a positive impact on how Quint tenants have responded to COVID-19.